- Moral Obligation, Disordered Care:The Ethics of Caregiving in Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder
One of the central concerns of ethics is what to do with, or about, another person's suffering. What is one's obligation to other people, friends, family, strangers? And what is one's obligation to oneself? Ethical commitment can prove to be a high-wire act, a struggle to balance distance and presence, evaluation and interaction, abstraction and action, the needs of others and of the self. Practical ethics, what Derek Attridge categorizes as "morality" (28), requires that the self be, as philosopher James Mensch explains, "able to distance itself from itself, but not to the point that it uncouples the world in which it acts from that in which it knows" (12). Responding to the other is an ethical act at the heart of the philosophy of care. Questions regarding who should give and receive care and, even more fundamentally, what exactly the giving and receiving of care means are inquiries with both ethical and ontological implications. The larger issues of ethics and moral philosophy are brought into focus by care philosophy, which draws principles and theoretical abstractions into the everyday world of dependency, responsibility, and work.
Margaret Atwood's 2006 collection of connected stories, Moral Disorder, grapples with the complicated ethics of obligation, particularly the conflict between selfishness and sacrifice that can arise within the praxis of care. 1 While some stories were published [End Page 236] earlier and separately, their gathering in this single collection produces a unified interrogation of the caregiving. Indeed, the need for care dominates these stories: the narrator or protagonist cares for a variety of family members, friends, strangers, and even animals. But in these stories the demands of care are never quite met, and none of the characters thrive as a result of the care they receive. I read the collection as a literary contribution to ethics of care discourse that draws attention to the losses and harm that can come with obligation. In this essay, I explore how and why caregiving is so often hazardous in these stories and what the problematic situations that these stories convey say about the larger philosophy of care, including but extending beyond their literary contribution.
For many critics, ethics of care represents a welcome alternative to prescriptive, justice-oriented patriarchal ethics, which tend to involve abstract principles and rules that have little relevance to the day-to-day lives of individual subjects. Indeed, the ethics of care is largely a rebuttal to "the liberal tradition of Locke, Kant, and most recently John Rawls," which "posits an autonomous moral agent who discovers and applies a set of fundamental rules through the use of universal and abstract reason" (Kittay and Meyers, Introduction 3). The early work of feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan responds to the masculine bias in ethical theory by presenting an alternative discourse of care and responsibility that regards human dependence as fundamental and inevitable. 2 As legal scholar Martha Fineman explains: "Our [End Page 237] society mythologizes concepts such as 'independence' and 'autonomy' despite the concrete indications surrounding us that these ideals are, in fact, unrealizable and unrealistic. Those members of society who openly manifest the reality of dependency—either as dependents or caretakers in need of economic subsidy—are rendered deviants" (215-16). Despite misleading illusions of autonomy, care is a central concern for all human beings, though its definition and parameters are apt to vary: "Caring is thus experienced as an unspecific and unspecifiable kind of labour, the contours of which shift constantly. . . . [I]t is only visible when it is not done" (Graham 26). In discarding rigid rules and principles, the ethics of care remains perpetually vague, open to interpretation: "In broad terms, caring is a concept encompassing that range of human experiences that has to do with feeling concern for and taking care of the well-being of others. This definition tells us that caring is both about activities and feelings" (Waerness 234). There is some agreement on this final point, that care involves both action and emotion—though some theorists emphasize either action (Bubeck) or emotion (Noddings)—but the precise parameters of...